The DWJ Project: Charmed Life
Since I got a request for Witch Week, I postponed the Dalemark books in favor of doing the Chrestomanci ones instead. But never fear, I’ll get to them all. 🙂
After Eric Chant (nicknamed Cat) and his older sister Gwendolen are orphaned in a steamboat accident, Gwendolen, who is a powerful witch, schemes to have them taken in by Chrestomanci as his wards. But Chrestomanci refuses to let Gwendolen go on learning magic — Cat, for his own part, doesn’t seem to have any — and so she begins causing trouble, and plotting with some rather unsavory magical types to boot. When Gwendolen pulls off her most spectacular trick, Cat finds himself saddled with the resulting mess.
This is actually the first Chrestomanci book, though it’s third chronologically, and decidedly not the first one I read. (That was Lives, and then maybe one or both of Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona; I can’t remember precisely.) I never quite read it with the right eye, though, since I came to it as a Christopher fangirl, and accordingly process Chrestomanci through a lens that didn’t actually exist when the story was written. Also, many of the things going on in the story were from the start entirely obvious to me, since I already knew the setting.
Despite me having that odd perspective on it, this is a delightful book. It has all the hallmarks of DWJ’s writing, from the whimsy to the interesting world to the deft handling of some really, really unpleasant elements. But saying more involves spoilers, so behind the cut we go.
It’s remarkable to me, now that I’m paying attention, how passive Cat is for the first ninety pages of this book. Look at my summary up above: it’s all about Gwendolen, until the last sentence, which I specifically put in there because otherwise the unwary reader might think Gwendolen was the (unlikeable) protagonist. Not until she jumps ship and Janet shows up does Cat start taking action in the plot; prior to that, he’s pretty much just an observer for the Gwendolen show. Which is, of course, part of the story — but it’s a testament to DWJ’s skill that the book works that way, rather than being frustrating.
I like the elements from Lives that show up here — which is, yes, the way I think of it, even though a more accurate description would be “the elements here that get incorporated into Lives.” The silver, of course. Cousins Frank and Caroline. Milly/Millie; she’s the major reason why I wish I’d read the books in the other order, since “OMG Chrestomanci’s wife came from another world and used to be the avatar of a Goddess!” is a lot more exciting than “so Millie and Christopher got married, as I expected.”
A question for those playing along at home, since my copy of Lives is currently loaned out and I can’t check: what’s the deal with how many lives Chrisopher has left? Here he says it’s two, but at the end of Lives it was three, those being the one he was “wearing,” the one in Gabriel’s safe, and the one Millie stuck in a wall back in Ten. My strong impression was that the Castle people were going to go retrieve that third life. It’s possible that one got destroyed; Gwendolen certainly destroyed Cat’s life when she bailed on 12-A. But I don’t see Millie doing something that horrible; I always thought she “used” Christopher’s life in more or less the same way he did when spirit traveling, leaving it there as a kind of anchor. Am I misremembering something here? Is that one just gone, and that’s why he’s down to two by Charmed Life?
(I ask mostly because he doesn’t lose a life in Conrad’s Fate, so the apparent discrepancy immediately led my brain in fanficcy directions: “Nine Ways Christopher Chant Might Have Lost His Seventh Life.” Etc.)
Overall, this book is a fantastic example of the way she could work in really hard-edged ideas without making the story itself feel cruel or depressing. I mean, on page one we get a remarkably graphic description of the steamboat accident and everybody dying; the climax shows Gwendolen calmly advising the bad guys that they’ll need to murder her brother repeatedly; and then there’s the matchbook, which still makes me shiver every time, when Cat strikes one and lights himself on fire. There’s real darkness in there, but it’s presented with that delicate balance, not trivializing it, but also not forcing the reader to dwell on it any more than they want to. I’m really not sure how she does it, on a craft level, but I admire it a great deal.
Next up: Conrad’s Fate.